The mood and expectations were high for the much anticipated Daytona Thunder Fan Fest and testing for the new Gen-6 NASCAR Sprint Cup stock car in early January. No better place to test new equipment than the legendary 2.5-mile tri-oval high-bank track at Daytona International Speedway.
The appearance of new and unique manufacturer designs for the 2013 stock cars attracted buoyant fans for infield festivities.
Practice sessions were divided into single-car runs and drafting packs. The first day of testing had no grouping for the 18 teams that transported 35 cars to the unseasonably warm Florida weather.
Drafting practice on the second day was proceeding smoothly for about 18 cars on track when Dale Earnhardt’s attempt at bump-drafting caused a 12-car crash. The “Big One” arrived early in 2013.
As this new car inventory is in limited production right now and another test is coming soon in Charlotte, some teams packed up broken cars and headed back to North Carolina.
Jeff Gordon was among other drivers answering questions from this reporter and explained the logistics.
“You need a lot of energy over the offseason,” Gordon said. “Those guys work really, really hard while the drivers might get some rest, the crew chiefs and the team guys are getting very little rest because they’re preparing for the new season. You add on top of that a new car—there is a lot of work to be done. We don’t have a lot of these cars sitting in our shops right now.”
On the third day of testing only 21 cars drove the high Daytona banks and all were in single-car run mode. Some teams including Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 car and Danica Patrick’s No. 10 full-time ride for 2013 purposely avoided the pack testing—a move that was beneficial for data gathering as they both avoided the big multi-car crash.
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton shared his optimism for the new Gen-6 car.
“We feel like we're in a way better place than we were a year ago with a lot of different things, not just the speedways, but the unrestricted racetracks also," Pemberton said. “Remains to be seen when the cars get in the teams' hands and what they do with them at the racetrack. But we're overly optimistic it's going to be pretty good, really good.”
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series director John Darby pointed out what an enormous task that changing race car design can be.
“At the end of the day, any project that we take on, the race fans come into a huge concern for us, and one of the things that we couldn't stumble on was keeping the balance of competition equal,” Darby said. “Right now we're feeling pretty good about it." He added, "I truly believe there's not another racing series in the world that could accomplish what these guys did since we left Homestead.”
The result of one big test, despite a big crash, or maybe even including the crash effects has likely produced much needed data for top NASCAR teams. The biggest result is that teams now take their new cars into Charlotte for testing on an intermediate track. Data gained there will amplify the present data and give drivers more of a chance to hone driving habits to suit the track behavior of the newly designed car.
Long-time NASCAR fan, Craig Drum, has strayed from viewing racing events in the past two years. Attendance in the ample NASCAR stands has shown many vacant seats throughout the long season across the U.S as well. Some of that is surely the effect of a struggling economy, but it may not be the single cause.
The new cars that look like production models have excited Drum. “I’ll watch more races now because the new cars look so good,” Drum said. “The past few years, I’ve only watched NASCAR during the Chase.”
Many fans seem to be attracted to the new cars that NASCAR is testing. If drivers have to forget their bump-drafting skills at Daytona and focus on other skills, that won’t disturb many NASCAR fans. They have shown their dislike for that tandem dance and NASCAR is doing everything it can to eliminate it.
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, Brad Keselowski, pointed out the need for seat-time on the first day of testing at Daytona.
“There are a lot of things going on including the new car that will get a lot of buzz here, deservedly so,” Keselowski said. “We are all working hard to figure out things together. Track time helps us to work through that and so far we are getting track time in.”
One huge result from Daytona Thunder testing is that drivers will have to change some of the ways they race on the super speedways—Daytona and Talladega.
With the running of the Daytona 500 in late February, it appears most NASCAR fans will eagerly welcome the lack of two-car pushing and the exciting appearance of the Gen-6 stock cars as the new cars take over the Sprint Cup racing world.
The first green flag in 2013 may bring renewed excitement for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing Series that originated in 1948.
FYI WIRZ is the select presentation of motorsports topics by Dwight Drum at Racetake.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained from personal interviews or official release materials provided by sanctions, teams or track representatives.